Retro: Space Rogue (1989)


Space Rogue was a game that in its day very much broke the mould for top-down 2D RPGs by including in it a flight simulator. Taking inspiration from the Star Wars character Han Solo, and adopting the gameplay of popular 80s fantasy role-playing game Ultima and the space flight simulation and trading concept of Elite, the makers put together a game that was somehow more than the sum of its parts.

While sister game Ultima went on to spawn a dozen sequels and launched the MMORPG genre, Space Rogue faded into relative obscurity. Elite is somehow considered a classic despite its inferior graphics and basic gameplay. Perhaps its simplicity is part of the charm, but for me it doesn’t stand up against Space Rogue.

In 16 glorious colours, you find yourself at the start of the game in an abandoned cargo ship floating in empty space. From there you start going from space station to space station, trading cargo to make the cash to put decent weapons and armour on your ship and start blowing up anything else you come across.

It’s not all lasers and missiles, though. When docked at these space stations, you come across sidequests and meet people who potentially know useful information. You’ll be sent to other star systems, through weird Malir gates, increasingly coming across a hostile alien race called the Manchi. Once you’ve earned a reputation in space combat, you’ll be sent on the main quest by Duchess Avenstar who has a tendency to go on about the “Black Hand” and the “Ferret”, and at this point you’ll regret all those pirates you killed out there in space because you’ll need their help.

Before you get bogged down in the usual RPG nonsense of ‘go there, say this to them and get the whatever’, there’s plenty of time to appreciate the quality of the physics engine. In Newtonian flight mode, where you have to accelerate into corners to combat your own inertia, it quickly becomes second nature to perform tricky manoeuvres in a combat scenario when there can be five other ships battling it out amongst themselves. Cruise flight mode deals with the inertia problem at low speeds, which is useful for landing and negotiating the Malir gates which can be challenging. It all just feels right to me, which is good going for a game originally written for the Commodore 64.

Space Rogue manages to pull together the different elements of gameplay in a manner that feels surprisingly immersive. It can be frustrating at times, when every time you reload you come across a battle you just can’t win, or when you have a conversation with a robot in a cantina that sends you off on a quest to a star system you’ve just been to and you’ve got to go back through that Malir gate yet again. Generally though, the fact that the game doesn’t pressure you to have anything to do with the storyline, and that you can basically do what you want, whether that be trading, bounty-hunting or plain old piracy, draws you into the game much more than other games of the period. The rich cast of aliens, humans and a robot who has lost his love, a highly addictive mini-game, and the original game manual set out as an owner’s manual for your ship all contributed to a great 80s gaming experience.

Good: Space flight and combat is easy to learn yet hard to master; many hours of fun to be had

Bad: Your friends will raise eyebrows when they see you playing; these will remain raised if they see the box art


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